Three Thoughts On Sacred Heart’s Recent Run

The Sacred Heart Pioneers won their third straight game late Saturday afternoon in impressive fashion, soundly defeating Holy Cross, 81-68.

The Crusaders came into the game with four victories, including a stunning one-point upset over then-ranked Harvard in their season opener. They were holding their Division I opponents, including Syracuse, to just 0.90 points per possession (ppp) and 46.5% shooting while extracting a turnover on a staggering 29.9% of the opponent’s possessions.

So how exactly did Sacred Heart muster 1.12 ppp while shooting 55% from the floor against this vaunted defense? Has this three game winning streak – Sacred Heart’s first such winning streak since the 2012-13 season – been an aberration or a mere sign of things to come? Here are some thoughts breaking down why the Pioneers have emerged as one of the better NEC teams thus far.

The Guard Play Has Been Fantastic

Senior Phil Gaetano is playing at a really high level. He’s dished out 40 assists against just 15 turnovers (2.7 A/TO) and has drilled 47.6% (10-21) of his three-point attempts so far this season. He’s always been one of my favorites to watch in the red and white, but to be honest, I always viewed Gaetano as a high floor, low upside type of player – an integral offensive piece, albeit someone who wouldn’t quite crack an all-conference team. Through eight games, he has proven me wrong. He’s playing at a level close to former LIU Brooklyn great Jason Brickman.

Cane Broome (left) currently leads all NEC freshmen in scoring and efficiency rating. (Photo credit - Paul Vernon AP)
Cane Broome (left) currently leads all NEC freshmen in scoring, steals and efficiency rating. (Photo credit – Paul Vernon AP)

Alongside Gaetano is freshman Cane Broome, who is a lock to win the NEC Rookie of the Week after registering 46 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and four steals in two victories over Colgate and the aforementioned Holy Cross. Sources in the program have been quietly comparing Broome to former Mount St. Mary’s guard Julian Norfleet, and so far, the comp has been spot on. Latina clearly trusts him, only Gaetano has played more minutes for the Pioneers.

With both Gaetano and Broome playing together – KenPom estimates the duo has shared the floor at least 33% of the time over the past five games – Anthony Latina has two terrific ball-handlers and facilitators that create a mismatch for the opposition. Against Holy Cross, a team that typically employs man-to-man full court pressure with Justin Burrell and Anthony Thompson in the backcourt, Gaetano was brilliant navigating the offense and dictating the pace. His passes over the top of the Crusaders defense – in the face of intense all-the-ball pressure – generated some easy looks for Sacred Heart, especially in the first half. Broome, despite his rookie status, was a playmaker in the half-court set, scoring 25 points on 7 of 12 shooting.

The Defense Has Been Much Improved

“One of our things we’ve been consistent with, minus the Ohio State game, has been our defense [and its consistency],” Latina said on NEC Front Row after the Pioneers’ victory tonight. “We held a very good team well under 40% [shooting]… they followed the game plan and were very disciplined.”

One look at the Pioneers’ KenPom defensive profile last season displayed A LOT of red. They were 297th nationally in defensive efficiency, while allowing opponents to make 52.7% of their two-point attempts. Their inability to get stops on the defensive end was the main culprit for Sacred Heart finishing so poorly in close games last year.

This year has seen a significant improvement in virtually all defensive aspects. With a healthy Evan Kelley and the aforementioned Broome, the Pioneers’ have contested a lot more of the opponent’s perimeter looks. In today’s effort, the Pioneers held the Crusaders to just 28% (7 of 25) from long-range, which has been a trend this season. Overall, Sacred Heart ranks third overall in defensive efficiency (1.01 ppp) among conference foes.

A Balanced Rotation Gelling

In my opinion, this is the best eight man rotation the Pioneers have rostered since the 2008-09 season, the last time the Pioneers finished a season with a winning record (17-14). Sure it’s a small sample size, but Latina has the ball-handlers (Gaetano, Broome), slashers (De’Von Barnett, Evan Kelley, Jordan Allen), three-point shooters (Steve Glowiak, Gaetano) and rebounders (Tevin Falzon, Filip Nowicki, Cole Walton) to construct a balanced, versatile rotation. In a league where most teams are either reloading or rebuilding, it isn’t a stretch to say that Sacred Heart has one of the more complete teams.

“One of our strengths as a team is we can have several different guys step up and have a big night,” Latina said after Sacred Heart’s second home victory of the season.

One favorable aspect of this rotation is its balance. Seven players have scored between 41 and 92 points this season, whereas those same seven have 19 to 39 rebounds. Broome may lead the Pioneers with 92 points scored, yet he’s only accounted for 18% of his team’s points, which is lower when compared to other leading scorers of NEC squads (Dyami Starks 32%, Matt Mobley 32%, Mostafaa Jones 24%, Earl Brown 22%, Rodney Pryor 22%, Jalen Cannon 20%, Marcus Burton 19%).

Speaking of Allen, the Hofstra transfer has been a godsend around the rim, making 20 of 29 attempts and giving Gaetano an excellent target near the basket. His veteran leadership has been the perfect compliment to the Pioneers’ front court.

Overall, it’s been a complete effort on both sides of the ball during the Pioneers’ three game winning streak. If the rotation can stay healthy (Nowicki is currently out with an injured shoulder) and continue to progress under Latina’s system, Sacred Heart may very well find themselves in the thick of the NEC race.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

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